Douglas Brinkley & Guenter Bischoff: Angry about the tepid federal response to Katrina

Historians in the News

... President Bush and some members of Congress are pushing the limits of disaster aid ... by talking of a major rebuilding effort across the Gulf Coast, inviting comparisons to the Marshall Plan, said Stephen Slivinski, budget analyst for the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank that pushes for restraint in spending.

"It creates the expectation that any future disasters are going to receive the same kind of treatment, and creates a dangerous precedent," he said. "It's going to cost more not just in the short run, but in the long run as well, and it's sending the wrong signal to localities."

Bischof and Brinkley, seasoned New Orleans scholars, also are worried about sending the wrong signals -- as they make the case in favor of a Marshall Plan-scale effort.

Both men are angry about what they see as a tepid federal response to Katrina. They want bold strokes, and were barely assuaged by moves in recent weeks by the Bush administration and Congress to dedicate billions of dollars to specific levee protection or relief measures. The money is not a new appropriation, but simply a redirection of unspent money from the $62 billion Congress allocated, mostly to FEMA, weeks after Katrina struck.

Brinkley said that Bush, trying to avoid distraction from the war in Iraq, seems attuned to lessons of the Vietnam War, when President Johnson struggled to muster support for the war and an anti-poverty agenda at home. But Bush is missing the lessons of World War II, when a "we're all in this together" spirit prevailed about tough challenges, the historian said.

"A point of history is to remind us that our times are not uniquely oppressive," Brinkley said. "Great countries rebuild."

The Marshall Plan directed U.S. help to a wide range of economic recovery programs across western Europe, providing, for example, more than $24 billion to France, $22 billion to Great Britain, $10 billion to western Germany and $7 billion to Austria in today's dollars, according to Bischof.

Meanwhile, in a parallel relief program, the United States provided more than $16 billion in today's dollars to Japan, not including aid after World War II in the form of import credits and spending on American military installations.

Bischof, an Austrian native who has written about how the Marshall Plan brought economic revival to that nation, sees parallels between the postwar episode and the post-Katrina struggle. The New Orleans region has seen destruction comparable with that during war, he says. Initial requests for American aid from suffering European countries were seen as recklessly high and were reined in -- not unlike what happened to Louisiana's early pitch for more than $200 billion in federal money. And he noted that ultimate agreement in Congress on details of the Marshall Plan followed a long and stormy debate.

Bischof also said fragmented lobbying is hurting the cause of Louisiana and Mississippi, just as it did European nations that needed help in the late 1940s.

"It really hurts the Gulf Coast that every state is making its own case," Bischof said. "Come up with a regional approach to responding to this -- and I really think that region should be from Florida to Texas. Then they're going to have much more political clout; then it's not going to be an issue of whether Louisiana is more or less responsible with federal aid."

Bischof said the United States also should pursue "a Marshall Plan in reverse," inviting European nations to send resources to the storm region....

Read entire article at New Orleans Times-Picayune

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